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Notable Books

Notable Books | Four memoirs

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir

This rambling family memoir by Israeli novelist Meir Shalev shows how perspective changes everything. At the heart of the memoir is Grandma Tonia. She could be depicted as a bitter complainer, whose habits of cleanliness drove her family crazy. Instead, Shalev portrays her as the tenacious matriarch of a close-knit family. Her mangled figures of speech and her never-ending battle against dirt become the grist of family stories that hold the family together. Shalev's memoir won't appeal to those who want straight and to-the-point stories, but he will delight those who appreciate the leisurely unfolding of funny family tales during a pioneering period in Nahalal, a rural farm community in northern Israel.

Signs of Life

When she was five months pregnant with her first child, Natalie Taylor's husband died of a brain injury sustained while he was skateboarding. She was 24. This memoir recounts her struggle to make sense of his death and her new status as widow and single mother. Drawing on contemporaneous journals, Taylor offers a raw and unfiltered account of the first year and a half (until her son's first birthday). She often ties her experiences to characters in the novels she teaches to her high school English students. Taylor is not a Christian and this book is not a story about trusting God, but this compelling account of personal grief and renewal invites the reader to see life through another pair of eyes. Note: Some bad language.

My Dyslexia

Schultz in 2008 won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry-and yet he is dyslexic. Growing up, he thought he was stupid because he was in the "dummy class." Not until his 7-year-old son received a dyslexia diagnosis did Schultz realize that his difficulties had a cause. In this short memoir, Schultz describes his school years in Rochester, N.Y., where he would eat lunch in a nearby diner and order goulash and milk every day, even though he didn't like them, because he'd once heard a man order them and couldn't read other items on the menu. He explains that he learned to think his way around obstacles, which contributed to his creativity. He writes: "I never meant to be annoying, forgetful, delayed, overwhelmed, and dumb-sounding and -looking."

THM: A Memoir

Thomas Hooke McCallie-THM-was a Presbyterian pastor in Chattanooga during the Civil War and Reconstruction. This memoir, intelligently edited by his grandson, David McCallie, helps us see how one godly pastor navigated the political currents of his day, keeping his gospel focus and refusing to side with either the North or South. He keenly observes and records events, including the hanging of two deserters from the Northern army. The editor adds historical notes and corroborating newspaper accounts to provide context. THM's trust in the living God despite hardship, and his warm evangelical faith, make this a fascinating account of a life well-lived to the glory of God.


Many children's books have crossed my desk recently. Here are four that caught my attention:

The Quest for Comfort by William Boekestein (Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) is about the Heidelberg Catechism and its three writers who "lived in a time when comfort was badly needed." It shows how God used them "to write a little book that explained the only true comfort in life and in death."

Mosquito by Virginia Kroll (Pelican, 2011) pairs alliterative rhymes with exuberant watercolor illustrations in a tale about a mosquito that bites various critters before being swallowed by a bat.

Lavishly illustrated with examples of his art, Maxfield Parrish: Painter of Magical Make-Believe by Lois V. Harris (Pelican, 2011) is a biography for children of an artist whose work adorned posters, books, advertisements, and murals.

In Around the World (Candlewick, 2011), Matt Phelan tells in words and pictures the tales of three historical around-the-world journeys: Thomas Stevens by bicycle in the 1880s; female reporter Nellie Bly in 72 days in 1890; and mariner Joshua Slocum by sailboat in 1895.


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